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Up and down the Front Range, in the cold, clear dawn of this coming Christmas morning, hundreds will hit the quiet streets. Not to go to church, nor run a 10K, nor attend a holiday brunch, but to volunteer, so that others can celebrate the holiday.
For more than 25 years, Jewish Colorado’s homegrown Christmas Mitzvah Project has provided a helping hand on Christmas Day by offering a range of charitable services, including organizing volunteer staffing for hospitals, assisted-living sites, homeless shelters—even shifts at surprising locations such a horse-rescue ranch—and gathering to put together care packages for people experiencing homelessness and animals in foster care.
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“The fundamental reason for this is that we don’t celebrate Christmas as Jews, so this is a mitzvah; we can relieve them, hopefully,” says Andra Davidson, Jewish Colorado’s vice president of marketing and events. (A mitzvah is a Hebrew word meaning “commandment”; an essential precept of Judaism is that charitable actions are a mandated part of one’s life.)
“No one knows who started the tradition. It just predates us personally, someone with a good idea,” says Davidson. “I do think there are similar programs in other cities, although it is not a franchise. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Some families have participated in the Project for decades, their children learning to equate the holiday season with acts of kindness and giving. There is something about the commitment and effort of being physically present that makes it more impactful for recipients and volunteers alike.
“This is about people-to-people communication, like going into a senior-living facility to bring some happiness to the people there on that day,” says Davidson.
The process is simple for those eager to help. Potential volunteers can sign up for shifts on the Jewish Colorado website, after which they are contacted by organizers and given the details about their chosen responsibility for the day. On Christmas Day itself, volunteers are meet by a rosh (lead) volunteer who coordinates the team’s efforts.
“We will start as early as 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Day, and work until 4 p.m. or thereabouts,” says Project lead Susan Chayet. “It’s a really nice desire of this community to give back, and it’s my favorite project we do every year. People really get engaged. It’s extremely inclusive.”
The volunteers take over only for non-medical personnel, fulfilling such functions as answering phones, passing out gifts, visiting with patients, and serving food.
“There are a couple of places that ask for people who come to get a little bit of background and training so that there isn’t downtime lost, or requirements like a flu shot,” says Davidson.
Meanwhile, the Project’s family site at the Denver Jewish Day School will accommodate 250 more volunteers, who will assemble packages filled with toiletries, fleece blankets, and meals to be distributed to those experiencing homelessness, as well as care packages for foster animals, and other projects. Currently all shifts at the family site are full, but the Project has other ways for people to help, including an Amazon Wish List that allows donors to purchase items to fill the the various kits, and a donation page to assist with collecting supplies for the volunteer activities. “People can give in a lot of different ways,” says Davidson.
With Christmas just around the corner, organizers are continuing to add new volunteer opportunities, which are expected to fill up before the Yuletide morn.
“There’s still open sites online,” says Chayet. “We’re filling up really fast; we open up an opportunity and it usually fills up overnight.”
And hey, did they mention you don’t have to be Jewish to participate?
“For many interfaith families, it’s a great way to start their day to give back something,” says Davidson. “It’s a smile we can give!”